HWF’s Interview with Tom Mayes, October 2019
You grew up in North Carolina. How did it shape you, especially in regards to historic preservation?
North Carolina is home, no matter how long I’ve lived somewhere else. It’s the place where my internal compass is oriented. My family is a North Carolina farm family. I was fortunate enough to grow up around old places and families that had lived on the land for generations, including people who lived in restored historic houses and people who used them as barns. I came to appreciate the beauty, history and tradition of those old places.
Have you visited Wilmington in the past? If so, what do you find special about the city?
My sister lived in Wilmington and taught there, then went to UNCW for graduate school. I visited often and found it to be a beautiful and distinctive place. It is, like many old cities, unlike any other place—located between the river and ocean, with a distinctive building style that mixes many different cultures. It doesn’t look like Charleston. It doesn’t look like New Bern. It looks like Wilmington.
You’re coming to Wilmington for HWF’s Annual Fundraising Luncheon. Why do you support the work of HWF?
I’m grateful for the work of HWF because when I come back to Wilmington, the place I remember is still present and alive.
I’m going to ask an impossible question, and I apologize in advance. In your book, you share so many reasons why old places matter: memory, identity, community, beauty, etc. But if you had to narrow it down to just one reason, what would it be?
I wish I had an answer to that question. But even for me, it varies depending on the place. I suppose, if I were to talk about the things that move me the most, I would say it is the sense of beauty that time has imparted to a place—a sense of mystery, curiosity, questioning, and awe.
I can’t believe I answered that. I didn’t think I was going to…
You have been a strong advocate for accessibility in historic places. What spurred your dedication to that movement?
With the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I was given the task of developing guidance for the preservation community when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) came out. That process was an eye-opening experience. I discovered how much resistance there was to making spaces accessible. Preservationists are used to being on the moral high ground, and I wasn’t able to get my mind around the issue until I realized that, in regards to accessibility, we weren’t on the moral high ground.
Then my mother, who nurtured my love of old places, became a wheelchair-user. Still, she wanted to go to old places, and I was deeply grateful for the spaces that had made themselves accessible so she could be with us. Interestingly, those were not always places that were required to do so by the law.
I’ll tell you a story: When I was first doing seminars about the ADA, we did a session at our annual conference in San Francisco, right after the ADA came out. One speaker was a wheelchair user and another was an accessibility expert. For that presentation, they just filmed the man navigating his wheelchair, trying to get from the street into the room where the meeting was being held. It was amazing because the audience could see how the smallest things—doorway width, a one-inch raised floor—could be a huge impediment. It demonstrated the hardships that most of us never even notice.
Old places should be accessible so they can be enjoyed by everyone. It’s up to us to figure out solutions.
There is a tense and complex racial history in Wilmington. You’ve long been an advocate for ensuring that historic places acknowledge such histories. Can you tell me more about that?
I feel strongly about telling the full story—or at least a fuller story. It’s always a continuing effort. I always remind people that it’s not a separate narrative; it’s the history we all share, and it’s incredibly important that we understand the layers of our collective history.
Wilmington in particular has an extremely challenging history due to the coup d’etat. I don’t think a community can become whole until we tell those stories and understand them in a more complete way—and also recognize them in the places we choose to honor and remember, whether positive or negative.
One of the challenges of the preservation community is we have not always told the full story. I’m a proponent of continuing to include places that help complete that narrative.